Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The New San Francisco Examiner: The Paper with No Voice

At the end of November 2011, The San Francisco Examiner was sold by its right-wing owner to another publisher, Black Press Group, which publishes many other papers, including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The question many of us in San Francisco (at least those of us who pay attention to real media) was whether the new owners would continue the populist hard-right opinion pages of the previous owner or if they would moderate it somewhat.

Today on my way to work, I picked up a copy, reasoning that the publishers have had enough time to make at least their initial changes in editorial policy. The Examiner is a free daily, filled with color, and in many ways it is nicely designed. It's thin – only 20 pages today – but then again it's a free paper with no newsstand or subscription revenue and this is a time of economic strain. But it still should have an editorial section, a page at least, and I was startled to see that it had none. Nor do I see anyone on the page two senior staff listing with a title of editorials editor or opinion pages editor or any such title.

There simply is no opinion section, not even a half-page. No letters to the editor, no editorial columnists, no op-ed columnists, no unsigned editorials. In short, it's a paper without a voice.

Opinion pages can appear in many forms, and they've been done in many ways. (Those of us from the Midwest remember hearing about the Chicago Tribune running editorial cartoons on the front page years earlier.) The paper can be conservative, liberal, moderate, radical, populist, erudite, a mishmash of all of those. But it should be something.

A well-done opinion section can be fun for an editor to put together and an absorbing (and yes, sometimes entertaining) experience for the reader. That The Examiner's new owners are depriving their staff and readers of this section is sad enough.

But the real shame of it is that San Francisco could use a well-done editorial voice, one that isn't lamely leftist and certainly one that isn't populist right-wing. (I still remember picking up a copy of The Examiner a few years ago and being confronted by at least two full pages of opinion pieces attacking ACORN – a tilt-at-windmills cause that only the far right ever cared about.) The city rather dearly needs an intelligent voice that can dissent from the prevailing political culture here and introduce new ideas and give criticism that has a chance of being heard. The venting-type right-wing silliness of The Examiner's previous incarnation had the dual problem of being too right-wing for even the conservatives in San Francisco while also being easily ignored because it echoed the worst of the fire-breathing populist conservatism that has taken over the Republican Party nationally.

Give San Francisco a daily voice that can be moderate or conservative, but particularly one that is smart enough to get itself heard with well-reasoned arguments, that listens to its opponents, and that can engage the attention and loyalty of that huge swath of San Franciscans who repeatedly reject the far-left at the mayoral ballot box every four years.

That would be a rewarding business move, because I think there are a lot of readers and advertisers who are looking for such a publication (and it's one of the reasons monthlies such as Northside San Francisco are growing aggressively). (Point to note: I am a columnist for Northside).

It would also be a rewarding move from the perspective of a newspaper really serving its community. It's one thing to tell people what they want to hear; it's another to tell them what they might not want to hear but that can help them be better citizens.

It's what newspapers at their best do. It's what The San Francisco Examiner isn't doing right now.

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